Published: Sept. 25, 2020

Learn a bit about Dr. Julia Moriarty, a new INSTAAR scientist and an Assistant Professor in ATOC who studies processes in the coastal oceans.

If we understand how and why particles like mud and sand move around the coastal ocean, we can better understand issues such as shoreline change, water quality and nutrient budgets, and how to interpret the geologic record.

Overhead view of waves breaking on a sandy beach

Coastal grasses in the York River estuary, a tributary to the Chesapeake Bay.

Dr. Julia Moriarty, a coastal oceanographer, joined INSTAAR early this year. At INSTAAR she is part of the Community Surface Dynamics Modeling System (CSDMS) research program; she is also an Assistant Professor in the department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences. Her research focuses on developing and using numerical models to understand and quantify the transport of sediment and nutrients in coastal environments. She is currently spinning up her research lab group. We asked Julia a few questions about her work.

What is your research about?

Coastal areas are where most of the population of the U.S. and the world lives, and they are changing rapidly. I study how particles like mud and sand move around the coastal ocean (estuaries, the continental shelf) and what makes them move. If we understand how and why this material moves around, we can better understand issues such as shoreline change, water quality and nutrient budgets, and how to interpret the geologic record.

My approach to looking at these questions is numerical modeling. A lot of my work is about improving and using these numerical models to understand processes in this complex environment.

I enjoy adapting numerical models to account for different processes and environments. For example, biogeochemical models used to model coastal hypoxia and water quality typically assume that particulate organic carbon and nitrogen that reaches the seafloor is either permanently buried, or decays instantaneously. But in reality this material is resuspended and redistributed often, which can impact the timing, location and magnitude of hypoxia. Some of my work has focused on better representing these seabed and near-bed processes in coasal biogeochemistry models so that we can better understand, and predict changes in, hypoxia and coastal water quality.

I’m at the interface of oceanography, geology, and engineering in some ways.

How did you get started down your research path?

My background is in physics. I was an undergraduate student in physics who realized there were a lot of interesting research questions related to geosciences. My first research experience was at NASA’s JPL where I calculated surface slope for potential landing sites on Mars for the Curiosity rover. I enjoyed the research experience, although the topic didn’t stick. After that, I became interested in fluid dynamics, sediment transport, and coastal oceanography through an internship at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. That was the topic that stuck.

Most of your work is with models. Do you go into the field as well?

I primarily collaborate with field scientists. But I think it’s important for modelers to go into the field to understand the environment and the measurements. I enjoy going into the field when I can.

What geographical areas have you focused on?

My research has included projects in New Zealand, France, the Gulf of Mexico, Chesapeake Bay, and New Jersey. That’s part of the fun of being an earth scientist. You have to compare environments!

Dr. Moriarty presenting her work in front of an audience

Dr. Moriarty presents her work on coastal ecosystem services.